Breaking: Finnish report prompts petunia genetics investigation in the U.S.

Breaking: Finnish report prompts petunia genetics investigation in the U.S.

The USDA is working with breeders to move forward after the discovery of potentially genetically engineered petunias.

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Following the news that orange-colored petunia varieties in Europe had been found to be genetically engineered (GE), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an investigation into other potentially affected varieties imported, distributed and grown in the U.S. without appropriate authorization.

Petunia breeders have been in contact with the USDA, which circulated a document dated May 11, 2017, listing some of the potentially affected implicated varieties, and instructions for how to destroy the seed and plants. The following plants are listed:

Pegasus Orange Morn
Pegasus Orange
Pegasus Table Orange
Potunia Plus Papaya
Go!Tunia Orange
Bonnie Orange – known as Starlet Orange in North America
African Sunset
Sanguna Patio Salmon
Sanguna Salmon
Trilogy Red
Trilogy Deep Purple
Trilogy Formula Mix
Trilogy Liberty Mix
Ray Salmon
Perfectunia Orange
Perfectunia Mandarin
Confetti Garden Tangerine Tango
Confetti Garden Twist
KwikKombo Color My Sunset
KwikKombo Orange Twist

According to the document, “USDA is currently conducting genetic tests on implicated varieties for which we have obtained samples. These tests will confirm whether these petunias are genetically engineered. As we obtain results from the genetic tests, we will provide updated lists of confirmed GE petunia varieties.”

Evira, the Finnish Food Safety Authority, released a statement on April 27, 2017, regarding the discovery of genetically engineered orange petunias. Evira noted in the statement that while genetically engineered plants “are not authorised for cultivation in the [European Union],” “The orange petunias do not cause any risk to people or the environment.” Evira “has decided to remove from sale seeds and planting stock of the ornamental plant petunia characterised by the orange colour of the flowers which has been produced by means of genetic engineering.”

According to initial conversations with breeders who have been in discussions with the USDA, the implicated plants were not properly registered with the USDA as GE plants because no one seemed to know that they contained or were bred with GE plant material.

Since the news broke at the end of April in Europe, petunia breeders have been working to conduct their own tests to determine which plants are affected after it was discovered it was not just orange petunias that may have been bred with a genetically engineered plant.

“We were completely shocked by the findings,” says Mike Huggett, national sales manager for American Takii. American Takii's African Sunset was the orange petunia that prompted the investigation initially, but the plants listed above are from several different breeders. “We sent out the recall through our broker network and instructed the growers to stop sales [on African Sunset], and following that, we conducted some other trials internally, and confirmed Trilogy Red and Deep Purple had foreign DNA in them, so we initiated a recall on those as well.”

American Takii only breeds using conventional means, Huggett says.

“Takii’s reaction was just to reclaim as much as we could because as far as the company is concerned, we don’t do any genetically modified plant material, we don’t practice in it, we don’t want to,” he says. “I’m not as much worried about the flowers as I am the perception about the vegetables. That’s when consumers get worried. Takii only does things the conventional way, even if it takes 10 to 15 years of work, you ultimately come out with something your customer can count on being non-GMO and the best breeding that’s available on the market. The petunia loss hurts, but in the bigger scheme of things, I think it’s the perception of what the company is doing. You don’t want to be associated with a GMO.”

The silver linings for American Takii are that the GE plant is an ornamental, not an edible, and therefore not harmful to consumers, and their recently released Evening Scentsation petunia tested negative for the GE material, says Steve Wiley, COO and general manager.

"It's an ever-expanding list," Wiley said of the GE petunias implicated by the USDA. "It’s one of those things where I think [the genetically engineered plant] sprang up during an age of innocence and perpetuated itself because no one even knew to look for it or fathomed that it was in the germplasm chain."

Huggett credits the USDA and the American Seed Trade Association for their “quick work and helping us navigate through this.”

“You can’t plan for this because it wasn’t our intention,” he says. “We have to start picking up the pieces.”

This is a developing story that we will continue to update as more information becomes available. The USDA did not immediately respond to calls and emails for comment and clarification.

Conner Howard, assistant editor of Garden Center magazine, and Chris Manning, assistant editor of Greenhouse Management magazine, contributed to this report.